During her second year in the counseling/school psychology education doctoral program at NAU, Melissa Wheeler did a practicum at Counseling Services.
Of all the students who came in and out of her office, though, she noticed something that bothered her—none of the clients looked like her. Wheeler was afraid that Native American students needed help but weren’t coming to CHS to get it.
So, she went to them.
Wheeler, a Navajo student who grew up in Round Rock, set up in the Native American Cultural Center (NACC). Outside of the formal clinical spaces, without a need to make an appointment—where students could just come into her office when they had a little time—and being able to talk to someone who looked like them, Indigenous students showed up.
“They didn’t want to go through formal counseling, or there was mistrust of the system, or they didn’t like the environment; it was sterile, and they didn’t feel comfortable. All of that just made students step back and think maybe it’s not that big of a deal,” she said. “With me coming out of those formalized Counseling Services spaces and going to spaces where Indigenous students are and providing services there, people just come in.”
Wheeler is in her fourth year at NAU; ahead of her is a yearlong internship and a dissertation. But her career has been outstanding enough already to warrant national recognition. She was one of only 10 graduate students nationwide selected for the second cohort of Rising Graduate Scholars from Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. This recognition identifies exceptional graduate students based on standout scholarship and their trajectory toward a promising future in academia or other fields.
“Melissa is an extremely competent doctoral student who has consistently worked to impact her own, as well as other, tribal communities through her research, clinical and mentoring activities,” said Y. Evie Garcia, the doctoral training director and associate professor in the College of Education who nominated Wheeler for the award. “She has presented her work nationally and internationally and is already a rising star in Native American psychology. Melissa is a caring and diligent person, and it has been such an honor to work with her in the Combined Counseling/School Ph.D. program.”
Her journey to NAU
By the time Wheeler arrived in Flagstaff in 2018, she had a lot of experience in the classroom. She had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from University of North Dakota, where she worked as a research specialist after graduating, and prior to that she attended a tribal college in Albuquerque.
“I loved school so much when I was a kid—I remember telling my teachers that I wanted to go to school forever,” she said. Young Melissa was not wrong; she’s on year 26, she said with a laugh.
Education was always important in Wheeler’s family. Her single mother and grandparents, none of whom had the chance to get a bachelor’s degree, always stressed the need for her make it a priority and to be an example to the rest of her community. She also found mentors—Indigenous mentors whenever possible—who told her the same thing, and she shares the same message with the younger students whom she mentors.
“My family’s the reason why I chose to pursue higher education,” she said. “Being one of the first to get a bachelor’s and a master’s in my family is challenging in so many different ways, but it’s also rewarding—I get to show my younger siblings it’s doable, and other people in the community too.”
When she decided to get a doctorate, Wheeler started looking at her options. She found NAU and immediately felt a connection. It’s one of the few universities she’s seen that prioritizes providing adequate educational services to Indigenous populations. She saw that commitment in the way leaders spoke, in the educational mission and the everyday work of the university.
“It isn’t just the mission statement that they say, but there’s actual work with the tribal communities,” she said. “It was one of the main things that drew me to this university. It wasn’t just the location, but the people that I met during my initial interview that made NAU feel perfect.”
The importance of visibility
Wheeler doesn’t really think of herself as a role model; she’s just a grad student working toward her goals. However, it’s hard to ignore the facts: there are a distressingly small number of Indigenous graduate students, especially in psychology. Even more distressing is the reality that Indigenous people are more likely to seek mental health care from an Indigenous provider, and if those providers aren’t there, people are more likely to go without needed care.
Her work at NAU has been largely focused on serving Indigenous populations, first at NACC and now through a fellowship with the Center for Health Equity Research (CHER). That’s part of her motivation; in addition to the importance of education, tribal leaders and her family were quick to remind her that she had a responsibility to come back and help her people. It’s important that she’s here.
And, she said, it’s important that others are here too; in fact, with the hiring of assistant professor Chesleigh Keene into her department, Wheeler had her first Native American professor of her entire collegiate career. She has several mentors from her own tribe and others but had never been in a classroom led by a Native American until then. This year, several Indigenous students interviewed for the doctoral program; when she applied, she was the only one.
When she started, Wheeler planned to do a dissertation centered on her work offering counseling at NACC. However, last fall, she applied for a fellowship with CHER to work on a culturally centered addiction research study program. That work focuses on how telehealth has been used in substance abuse treatment. Her dissertation research will build on the research CHER is doing; she will examine cultural treatment practices and identify effective approaches based on what culturally sensitive practices were utilized effectively over the last couple of years.
She’ll spend the next several months formulating questions, conducting interviews and collecting quantitative data. About midway through her yearlong internship at the Southwest Behavioral Health Center in Buckeye, she’s hoping to defend her dissertation.
Once she graduates, Wheeler isn’t sure what comes next—clinical or academia. Both offer opportunities about which she’s excited.
“In the United States, there are less than 300 Native American self-identified psychologists,” she said. “For Navajo psychologists, there are less than 20. There’s not that many of us out there. I hope to make that difference someday soon.”
Garcia expects nothing less.
“She will undoubtedly employ her skills as a future university professor and psychologist to revolutionize research and training practices, as well as integrated mental healthcare approaches that reduce disparities for Native American communities.”
Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 | firstname.lastname@example.org